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03.24.06 6:55 p.m.

I value the friend who for me finds time on his calendar, but I cherish the friend who for me does not consult his calendar.  

-Robert Brault


Previously in Xenology: Emily's father was diagnosed with months to live.


I saw the tall, blond man checking me out on this crowded city street. I caught his eye to let him know that I am aware of what he is doing and to try to read his intentions - am I somehow attractive? - but the signal changes and the crowd lurches forth before I get the chance.

Emily and I were having a city day, something only those people within a fifteen-minute drive of the Metro-North railroad seem to do. Any further away and the trip is a major production, any closer to the city and it doesn't warrant a special designation; it is just a day. We went with the intention of getting cheap tickets to whatever show we first stumbled upon, ending up with standing room tickets to the Lion King that were just about worth the $20 we spent. It was magical to see the "animals" appear behind us before the first act and utterly terrifying when we later found hyenas waiting behind us for their turn on stage, but little other praise is deserved. If there had only been this musical and no Disney movie, this show would have been unfavorably compared to Cats and wouldn't last a season, if it could get backers enough to open at all. It certainly is too quirky to justify the $200 tickets we immediately opted against buying. The story is weak and predictable and no actors are animate enough to beat actual animation, Robin Williams excepted.

The best moment for me came after the curtain call where the actor portraying Scar importuned us to part with money to help Africans. A noble message and a cause I certainly support, but my mind could not disabuse itself of the notion that Scar was just fatten them up to devour. You just cannot trust a man in that much make-up.

I love the city because, as we exited the theater into a mass of angry hip hop acolytes and tense police officers, there stood one of those stereotypical street preachers wearing a black hat and coat and a cheap white plastic mask graced with a marker beard in a poor approximation of Guy Fawkes. V for Vendetta had been open for two days and, while I am aware that the graphic novel long predates it, the zealot was certainly hoping to appeal using the film to get passersby to listen to his message. Emily would not let me stop to take a picture of him or to take one of his pamphlets. I can't imagine why.

A few blocks after this, Emily and I walking as a brusque clip to avoid whatever protest was forming at our backs, we were stopped by the tall man with the shaggy blond hair, who wished to speak to up about this artists' co-op in West Virginia from whence he hailed.

"We might be moving down there," I told him, nodding to Emily. We don't actually know where we will end up and I have faith enough in randomness to take this as an omen. A West Virginian artists' co-op seemed as reasonable as any decision, should Emily not get into grad school. It is certainly closer than India.

We spent several minutes chatting amiably with him, which I think surprised him more than he let on. In the city, possessing price tagged propaganda no more flattering than a thin literary magazine and a t-shirt embossed with the slogan "stop bitching start a revolution," one will not generally get much positive attention. He had associates trying the same tact, but they were as pebbles in the rushing water of the city sidewalk, evaded without notice or effort.

We parted ways with the man to buy ourselves beverages for the long train ride home, though when we arrived at the coffee shop (and I haven't the foggiest idea how Emily happened to know there would be a coffee shop in that direction, but she most definitely did) Emily pronounced that we would bring tea to the Zendik propagandist. I love this girl, you know. Three teas later, mine ice tea despite the blustery cold of the day, we made our way back several blocks in hopes of giving this stranger a peppermint tea. Would he even accept a beverage from us? Emily has a very honest face, so I felt there would be a good chance. When we got home and could research Zendik a bit, it became clear that the tea would not be to his liking, as it was not totally organic and came in a non-biodegradable cup, but our intentions were pure.

He had moved from his corner, so we continued to pursue where he might have gone against the flow of foot traffic. We found a cluster of fellow Zendik members and Emily asked them very simply for the location of the tall one. They knew immediately to whom she must be referring and motioned for her to go several more blocks. There we found him, head far above the crowd and effetely trying to sell his t-shirt to anyone who would listen. He might have had a better chance with a Guy Fawkes mask. He accepted the tea and thanked us, and there our interaction ended.

Aside from discovering that the tea would likely be used exclusively as a hand warmer, our following up on the internet revealed that this groups wasn't exactly like a hippy commune. As one critic maintained, one would not find shirtless and hairy-legged women wandering about uselessly. Apparently, everything was rather efficient and life did not flourish in a cloud of pot smoke. The biggest criticism we could find for their being a cult was someone who insisted that they mocked him monogamy and coerced him into group sex. Whatever you have to tell yourself. What I found off-putting was that they stressed a lack of privacy so, when one wished to enjoy one's romantic partner without an audience, you had to go to the sex shed. The presence of a sex shed tends to undermine one's philosophical message to me, but they seem to be a good bunch on the whole.

Karma Police

Emily has vowed to become vegan again because, in her words, she can't be both a budding Buddhist and a carnivore. I asked why and she explained that every creature has an opportunity to escape the karmic cycle and she doesn't want to be the reason they need to be incarnated again.
Do smores have karma?

"So cows have karma?"


"And they can reach nirvana in this incarnation?"

Emily pauses for a moment, shrinking the concepts down and translating them as best she can. "There is no nirvana; that's just a band, but kind of."

There was a time when I would have teased Emily affectionately about this dietary change, but if she is eating healthily enough, I have no issue. "What about cheese?"

"No. I can't eat any dairy products that aren't free range."

I bite my bottom lip thoughtfully. "So milk has karma?"

"I have a feeling that you are going to be saying that a lot, aren't you?"

"I just want to be clear."

Watching the Clock

I know that he is dying, but watching him, bald and enfeebled, is too grievous. He walks with a cane now and will until he no longer walks at all. He is easily fatigued, but the steroids he is one do their job of keeping him cogent. He still seems like Stuart to me, though a slower and sicker version. He seems much more decrepit that his nearly hundred year old father-in-law

Emily's family had gathered in Westchester, land of houses with faux aristocratic titles and price tags that exceed my expected lifetime income. Emily reminded me without need that we would have to have to become very different people to live within a dozen miles of these estates. Somewhere, there is the masculine part of me that wants to be a caregiver who is vaguely annoyed at her implication that I cannot provide. The owners of these houses are fabulously rich, something I very much doubt I shall ever be. But I am content with little. I do not think Emily is as much. None of my relatives live in mansions, after all. Emily will work to sickness just to give herself a few weeks break before paying to work even harder. I work steadily and never very hard. I think I have the better end of the deal, but I wonder if she couldn't say the same about herself.

I had been blighted with the beginnings of a cold that sapped my vitality and made my tongue sore. This latter symptom might have been a hidden blessing, as it meant I was a selective mute toward those members of the Shedletsky clan that I see infrequently enough to care to impress. I could speak, but kept my interjections short and pithy.

No one mentioned that Stuart is the reason we lunching on cold cuts, Caesar salad, and knishes. We treat it like a common family occurrence, standing in informal semi-circles and bantering about anything but cancer, pretending this isn't the last time most of these people will see Stuart alive. I know it is morbid to think it, but I don't stop the thoughts. While Emily and her mother daily slog through the emotional quagmire of Stuart's impending death, most of these people are coming in during the last few minutes of the closing act. At least they flew to be with him or invited him to visit. Many family members have not, which I know they will regret in a few months.

Everyone is gathering and crying in separate rooms in honor of him. Are they crying to Stuart? I do not know. The mourning is so regular, like clockwork. The gears turn, the residents of each room shift, tears to eating to talking to sitting and the cycle repeats. I tried to repress my cold so I could be lively and active in the gathering, do what is expected of me, though I would have benefited far more from a nap.
There is a sadness within

All I can do is console Emily with my every breath. She asked me today how I was doing and I told her basically what is written here. I am fine. I will miss him. I am sorry for her, but she brings the topic back to how I am handling this. She scrawled "Emily [My Surname]" in a dozen different ways in a notebook I found. It was painfully geeky and sweet, but I wonder if this is a projection. I hate even thinking this, a gesture like that can and should stand by its own weight, but it cannot be helped now. I am someone who is not going away. I am fairly healthy. I am young. I lack the paternal drive, but I comfort from love that is my own. I cannot mimic a father's love and would never try. She had a childhood that never was, memories she convinced herself to have. What childhood should have been rather than what it was. Though in these waning moments, she is only just discovering what his life truly was, she knows her father better than these relatives ever will. She goes out and sits on the porch with her cousin, who has just shifting for having a private discussion with Stuart. I sit in a drawing room and watch them through the window, watch her hands flutter and cup like she is catching fairies. Her cousin's eyes were wet and pink when he called her out to speak with him, and it seemed too intimate and accidental to have seen.

"What are you doing?" Emily's sister Lauren asked as she walked into the room. She had flown in from Minnesota for this weekend and will fly out again Monday morning. She will return again in weeks, though no one can know how many more times she will have to repeat this process and I wonder what she will do with the frequent flier miles.

"Watching them. I wish I could hear them," I admitted to her. She sits a cushion away from me, gathering her thoughts. My head is not functioning as it should, and I am aware that I should say something more to excuse my voyeurism of this silent scene, but I don't. I am the only person in this household not yet related to everyone else through blood or marriage and all I can really do is watch.

Emily's grandfather came in and sat in a chair, blocking my view of Emily and her cousin. She must be freezing out there, wearing only a sweater, but she keeps talking because he needs to vent to someone. Lauren and her grandfather began to chat about some story of his that happened decades before my parents were born and the gears shift. I walk into the other room, forgetting to excuse myself, and pick up a handful of lime corn chips.

In the living room, younger members of the family sit on the sofas and listen as a cousin talks art with Emily's father. I munch on my chips, as eating makes me feel a little more human despite my cold. I say nothing - not that I think I know art well enough to interject - and just listen.

"The worst part is all the art I know I am leaving unfinished," Stuart said, running his hand over his bald head that once was covered in bushy red hair.

"Some of the best work in the world is unfinished," excuses the cousin, who seems to have undisguised hero worship for Emily's father. This excuse isn't enough for Stuart. It is his art and he is the one that has to finish it and damn Death for trying to get in his way, a conceit he has passed down to his daughter in spades. I don't know how much art he has unfinished, but can certainly imagine the multitude of projects he has begun. I am only twenty-five, yet I have dozens of things I know I have to write. At well more than double my age, I doubt he has fewer to paint. To know that the work is there, but that you lack the strength to finish it must be one of the hardest parts of this experience for him.

Soon in Xenology: New jobs. Pedro the Mountain Mummy. Harlequin ichthyosis.

last watched: Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
reading: History of Magic and the Occult
listening: The Greatest Songs Ever Written (By Us)

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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